Jonathan Lopez’s The Man Who Made Vermeers retells the story of Han Van Meegeren, the masterful Dutch art forger of the mid-Twentieth Century, the man who became a sort of folk hero to his countrymen after World War II when he confessed to having sold one of his fakes to Hermann Goering. Although there’s nothing really that mysterious about this read, Lopez’s book was selected in 2009 as one of five finalists for the Edgar (Allen Poe) Award for non-fiction crime writing, so I guess it's a legit topic here.
The whole business was made possible by a “fortunate” conjunction of con-man personality, artistic talent, technical skill, and perfect timing. Vermeer lived as we know in the 17th century, but his surviving oeuvre was small (only 34 or 35 painting are firmly attributed today). Moreover, his subject matter and style varied widely, and he signed only about half his canvases, and few contemporary descriptions of his work existed. Vermeer wasn’t “discovered” until 1850 at which point he became wildly popular, with experts “predicting” that new paintings would turn up from time to time. So by the 1920s and 30s, when collections owned by the Russian aristocracy and European Jews were being sold off, the situation was perfect for Van Meegeren. And a few real Vermeers did surface, though not enough to meet demand. Every collector wanted to possess one. Well, it’s a fascinating story, particularly when viewed as a general exploration of why great cons succeed.
As usual, a lot is about seeing what you want to see. The story makes me think again how vulnerable personal judgments about quality and value are to so-called expert opinions, opinions the forger views with a very jaundiced eye. I mean, how often have you stood in front of some painting and thought to yourself—hmm, I could do that! Yet of course you didn’t, and it grinds that that painting hangs there in the museum, valued at a gross amount of money. And so the forger takes a dig at the whole business of expertise. How sweet is that?
I don’t know, I find it difficult to condemn completely this kind of fraud. Of course, fraud depends on lies, and lies undermine the trust that glues society together. And Van Meegeren did make a gross amount of money (he had to work to spend it!) and he embarrassed a lot of people, from Goering (who deserved it) to Bernard Berenson and the National Gallery in Washington DC (who probably didn’t). And he was a Nazi sympathizer too, which led to his downfall. Lopez argues that individual forgeries have “expiration dates,” that nobody today would be fooled into thinking a Van Meegeren was a real Vermeer, because he claims the successful con ties together the style of the original with a sublimation of the contemporary (and thus ephemeral) value. He may be right, but again I’m not convinced—about the ephermeralness that is of the appeal—and if I ever get to Salerno I’d like to take a look at Il Museo del Falso. I’d love to see a show that gathers together without attribution all known Vermeers as well as the dozen or more Van Meegerens and see just how good the public, even the “informed” public, is at distinguishing the one from the other.